MUMBAI–India cannot be forced. India will not adapt to you.
I am still learning the pattern and subtexts of interactions and could continue to learn them for several lifetimes to come. I know enough to realize all the things I cannot see, to know there is an alternate universe of clues that I am missing. There are layers under layers and when I look beneath one, there are layers I have no idea how to access.
What can be written of the place? On one hand you have a complex political history of kings and princes, foreign invaders, and diverse waves of immigrants, all of whom have left their stamp upon India. You have hundreds of languages, myriad castes, and thousands of gods in a landmass that encompasses every type of climate and environment at their most extreme. And this country, Mother India, Bharat, has only been a modern nation state since 1947.
On the other hand, the basic land of India, of Hindustan, the land beyond the Hindu Kush and the Indus River Basin, south of the Himalayas, has been recognized by historians, cartographers, and travelers as a particular and distinct entity since before Alexander the Great made his ill-conceived attempt to keep moving, conquer more, push farther into the unknown.
Hindustan may have been a disunited political sphere of competing kingdoms and cultures but those disparate entities belonged to a set of overarching cultural traditions that belong nowhere else. The physical geography of India is a sacred geography as well and that sacred geography has remained more or less constant and consistent across millennia.
The oldest gods of the Hindus have been worshipped without cease, without interruption, since human culture was young.
When you step into India you are piercing the veil of a culture that has operated since the dawn of civilization and it doesn’t matter whether you like it or not, whether the follies and foibles and grandeurs of that civilization drive you mad or leave you in awe. India will not adapt to please you. It may, however, let you adapt to it. It may change ever so slightly to allow you a place.
At times it feels as if India is composed of some reactive substance and the harder you push against it the harder it pushes back. Push too hard and it will slap you down. Keep moving forward and it might let you in, but do keep moving. If you give up, if you show weakness, it will maim you. Doing anything in India takes not only perseverance but a willingness to endure pain and suffering. Use force and the way will close against you.
Keep moving, keep smiling, keep asking, and finally, without explanation, the way usually opens.
Indians are proud. They are proud of Mother India and of the ancient, complex culture married to an ancient land that binds them. They have seen foreigners come to their land full of fantasies, seeking spiritual enlightenment, seeking erotic mysteries, seeking jasmine scented nights on palm-fringed shores, and wise old gurus high in mountain silence.
They have seen them arrive, tossed into the overwhelmingly hot, humid, incomprehensible chaos that is Bombay, a place with no interest in a traveler’s Orientalist fantasies of its citizen’s daily lives. It is so overwhelming at first that you can barely isolate details from the general rush.
You are stupefied by the heat and noise and when you are told no, or told the rule is different from the rule you were told before, or informed that where once there was no rule, now there are five rules and several forms to be filled out as well, you want to scream, “How can there possibly be any rules at all? Look at it out there!!!”
What I have found, in dealing with Indians, is to take their pride seriously. You might say this is obvious, but I disagree. I believe most visitors, despite their best intentions (and often because of them) arrive here to colonize India. They come here with a plan as to what they will accomplish, what lessons they will find, what orphans they will save, what enlightenment they will receive, what yoga moves they will perfect, what, in short, they will take.
The fractious, united, awful, lovely mess of India, let alone the high-speed, non-stop Bollywood gangster hustle of Mumbai do not neatly fit with the western conception of eastern enlightenment and of obtaining, quantifying, and making a commodity of that enlightenment.
On one level you simply need to accept India. I don’t know if it is even necessary to like India, but you must take it as it comes (liking it certainly helps, though at times this is next to impossible). Liking individual people, however, is necessary, as is being unafraid of them, and this is not difficult at all.
It should go without saying that a smile, a sense of humor, and a bit of knowledge of the local languages and customs go a long way to smoothing the way in any foreign land.
Nowhere, in my experience, has this proved to be more true than India. The good will one receives simply by being able to introduce oneself in Marathi, the language of the native Mumbaiker, is out of all proportion to the effort invested.
Or perhaps not. If you are the only foreigner a man has ever met who knows a word of Marathi, that it is even a distinct language, maybe his gratitude is not unfounded. Follow that up by a bit of chit chat, even in Hindi, about where you are from, where you live, how many children you have and you establish a basis for both of you being equal and human instead of avatars of the “exotic east” and “developed west”.
What does this all have to do with photography, you might ask? I would argue everything. Photography, above all else, is an art of observation. It is technical skills and specialized optical/mechanical/chemical/computer equipment used to capture fleeting moments of lighted time.
Part of the reason that technical skills are so important, sort of a secondary skill of primary importance, is that in their mastery the photographer comprehends what the camera and film are doing in order to stop a moment of history and transmute it into art.
The knowledge of how shutter speed, aperture, and ISO work together in concert with the particular ergonomics, mechanics, and optics of one’s chosen camera and lens, and the particular characteristics of one’s chosen film or sensor, give you a greater ability to translate the moments around you into a finished print that attempts to transcend the reality it came from.
When I look at the world I see a finished print through a series of overlays in my mind. I see scene X unfolding in front of me in Tegucigalpa and see that it will look like Y if taken with a Leica M6 TTL through a 50mm Summicron on Ilford HP5+ and printed as a full frame image with a black border on Kodak 8×10 inch glossy grade 4 paper from the filed out negative carrier in my Simon Omega D2 enlarger…
…which is different than scene Z, shot on the streets of Mumbai with a 24 megapixel Leica M-P through a 50mm Zeiss Planar, commercially printed at 20×30 inches after being run through Photoshop and DXo FilmPack’s Tri-X or Kodachrome 64 filters.
I strongly believe that the print is the ultimate goal and test of photography. The camera is the tool used to capture an image that will ultimately be printed, and knowledge of the camera, its components, and all the steps towards the final print are of great importance.
Mastery of them is part and parcel of mastering the art itself. But all these technical considerations are ultimately subsumed to the ability to identify a moment in the world and freeze it, extract it from time–and even context–and make it both something more and something less than what it was.
If you learn your camera, you free your powers of observation. And ultimately, if your profession, hobby, or avocation is actually taking pictures rather than fetishizing camera gear, then the camera must take second place to the eye and mind.
Whether you are out on the streets or in the studio or deep in the jungle, you are choosing one slice of time over another, choosing to include this and not that.
The camera is a tool unique in its ability to show what it was that you saw, what you experienced, and the way that moment saw you. This is why an understanding of history, language, religion, and culture, of learning how to navigate a place and to accept it, are so important to photography (as well as to your personal safety).
Photography is an act of observing, of choosing a viewpoint and a moment, removing them from the flow of time, and presenting that moment as a form of explanation. That explanation can range from highly literal to completely abstract, but every photograph is an artificial construct.
Every photograph, no matter how real is appears, is nothing but stains on paper, a two-dimensional representation of a multi-dimensional occurrence, yet it has undeniable importance as a document of the way something was that is no more.
Your ability to extract that moment, to give it meanings that live beyond the light that made it, is why you pick up a camera in the first place.
Remember as well, that the act of photography, of making images and of isolating one moment out of another, alters the flow of time. I keep this in mind when I am on the streets of Mumbai. My presence and the presence of my camera both preserve history and, in incremental ways, alter its course.
The people I meet and talk to change as I am changed by them. They often photograph me and I photograph them and we go home with images and echoes of that encounter. So, though it often seems that India will not adapt to me, the act of photographing a place is an act of changing it.
Knowing as much as possible, both of cameras and of India, allows me to walk with greater grace, to leave less turbulence, to – one can only hope – acquire images that are good and true and leave good karma in my path.
~ Andrew Tonn
Write for EMULSIVE
EMULSIVE is all about promoting knowledge transfer across the film photography community. You can help by contributing your thoughts, work and ideas to inspire others reading these pages: check out the submission guide.
If you like what you're reading you can help this passion project by heading on over to the EMULSIVE Patreon page. There's also print and apparel over at Society 6, currently showcasing over two dozen t-shirt designs and over a dozen unique photographs available for purchase.